The case is emblematic of repression in Belarus. A Belarusian court on Wednesday (May 3) sentenced Roman Protassevich, a former dissident journalist and former editor-in-chief of Nexta, to eight years in prison, arrested in 2021 after the spectacular interception of an airliner, sparking outcry and Western sanctions against Minsk.
According to the state-run Belta news agency, Stepan Poutilo and Ian Roudik, two other defendants in exile abroad, founders of the opposition media outlet Nexta, were sentenced respectively in absentia to twenty and nineteen years in prison, including for calling for "acts of terrorism". The three young men faced a series of charges, including public calls to "seize power", commit "terrorist acts" and insult the head of state.
Roman Protassevich was arrested on May 23, 2021 with his partner Sofia Sapega when their Ryanair flight, linking Athens to Vilnius, was intercepted by a Belarusian fighter jet, sparking outcry and Western sanctions. The prosecution had requested twenty years of prison camp for Stepan Poutilo, nineteen years for Ian Roudik and ten years for Roman Protassevitch.
Nexta played a key role in the historic protest movement against the August 2020 re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko, through the massive publication, for example, of calls for demonstrations and images of mobilization and police repression. This earned this media to be banned and classified as a "terrorist organization" by the Belarusian justice.
After his arrest, Mr. Protassevich agreed to cooperate with investigators and claimed to repent, in videos broadcast by Belarusian public television, recorded "under duress" according to the Belarusian opposition.
On Wednesday, he appeared at the hearing in Minsk, sitting alone in the dock, dark circles under his eyes, according to images released by the Belta agency. “Protassevich has respected the terms of the cooperation agreement concluded with him. Therefore, the accused will receive less than he could,” prosecutor Natalia Sokolova told Belarusian television in late April. He has been under house arrest since June 2021 while Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen, was sentenced to six years in prison. Negotiations are underway between Minsk and Moscow for her to be transferred to Russia to serve her sentence.